California Split is one of Robert Altman's least known films but it is certainly among his best. The film - made in 1974 right in the middle of Altman's most prolific and outstanding period - is his a buddy/gambling movie.
Like most of the genre films he made in that period he turned the whole thing on it's head in his own unique way. Elliott Gould is Charlie and George Segal is Bill - two Southern California gamblers who meet in a poker hall and become fast friends.
Right from the start of the film Robert Altman's skill as a filmmaker is evident. Particlarly his use of CinemaScope in tight spaces and the way the camera (helmed by Paul Lohmann) freely floats and pans around the room. And also his use of sound, which he uses to introduce the characters and set the opening scene is very effective as well as innovative.
Altman revolutionized sound in the 1970's and with this film he used eight track recording for the first time: Meaning he had eight seperate tracks recording at once, which in the editing process he mixed together quite effectively.
Like all Altman films the script - by Joseph Walsh - is a series of loosely directed scenes which quickly become brilliant improvisations. Gould is as good here as he was in M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye as a free spirit with a quick sarcastic wit and laid back attitude. Segal is also quite good as an uptight gambler who has gambled his way into a huge debt and must find a way to pay it back.
Both characters begin to hang out with a couple of call girls (played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles) and due to their witty attitude run into a bit of trouble along the way. But mainly they have good luck with their gambling habit. The question is will they continue to win? And if they do will the thrill remain before burnout gets them?
Unlike most Altman films of the period this one isn't as cynical. It is basically good fun from start to finish although there is an undertow of resentment between the characters toward the end (especially Segal's character who seems to be troubled) that says more about each character's gambling addictions than it does about their fate.
At 105 minutes California Split moves along quickly and even though the plot takes a back seat to character and some of the storyline begins to meander a bit Altman brings it all into focus when he needs to.
Shot in CinemaScope 2.35:1 the trasfer looks excellent. As in many Robert Altman films this one is more grainy and soft than it is glossy yet the image itself has been cleaned up and looks as good as it does on the big screen.
The audio as mentioned before utilizes eight tracks all blended together in that special Altman way. Characters talk over one another and other conversations and noises become part of the overall sound design of the film. The audio also has been remastered in high definition Dolby Digital.
There is a Director and Cast Commentary audio track with Robert Altman, Elliott Gould, George Segal and co-screenwriter Joseph Walsh. It's a good commentary track that is right in line with an Altman movie. There are some insights but for the most part the commentators are watching the film along with us and mentioning things when they remember them. It would have been nice to have some kind of scholarly insight or maybe a little guidance but at least Altman isn't left alone in silence like he was on some of the other commentary tracks of his films.
California Split is Robert Alman's gambling/buddy movie and - made in 1974 - it is also one of his least seen films. Among his fans it is considered one of his best and least appreciated works. Unavailable in video for many years it is a very welcome DVD that should be seen by anyone interested in Altman films.